To Tug or Not to Tug?
Also published in January 2016 Speaking of Dogs Newsletter.
When you grab a toy, does your dog try to get it by nipping, jumping, and barking? Would your dog keep running after a ball forever? If so, you have a reinforcement at your disposal that you can use to train polite behaviours, so don’t give it to your dog for free!
Playing tug is a concept that still occasionally raises eyebrows, as one urban legend in dog training is that a dog can become aggressive if allowed to play tug or (heaven forbid) win the toy. These are concepts that are very much out of date, and, I often use tugging as a reward for behaviours when I want speed and enthusiasm, such as long-duration heeling or recalls.
But it is very true that, with some dogs, you have to be mindful about how you play tug because if you don’t implement clear rules and allow the dog to snatch the toy by jumping and nipping, things can get out of hand. For this reason, children should only be allowed to tug with dogs under adult supervision.
Now let’s look at the two rules of tugging.
Train a rock-solid “drop” to get the toy away from your dog. There are several techniques to train “drop,” and I have found the following to be the most straightforward: first, condition your dog to the word, before she has anything in her mouth, by saying “drop” (or any chosen word) and then tossing a few treats on the ground. Then slowly introduce a toy, and when the dog picks up the toy, say “drop” and again toss treats on the ground, but without expecting your dog to respond to the cue. Sooner or later, she will start spitting out the toy when she hears the magic word. (For a more detailed description, see this movie by Domesticated Manners.)
Why train “drop” before tugging? First, if your dog doesn’t relinquish the toy back to you, he may end up just playing on his own, meaning it’s no longer a mutually engaging activity. Second, for dogs who get very aroused by a toy, it is important to play in short bursts of 10–20 seconds at a time followed by the “drop” cue so that the dog learns to calm himself down before playtime continues.
But what should you do if your dog finds the toy more reinforcing than the treats? You may have to condition the word a little bit longer without a toy and then first introduce easier items for her to pick up instead of her favourite tug toy. Also, having two identical toys can help. You can give her exactly the same toy as a reward for dropping the one in her mouth. Another trick that works for the type of dogs for whom the actual pulling and tugging is the most reinforcing part: let go of the toy yourself before you say “drop.” This way the toy has already become more boring, as you are not tugging the other end. The dog will be more inclined to spit it out.
You should only tug with a calm dog. If the dog is jumping, barking, nipping, or doing anything obnoxious, never give him the toy because you will reinforce these unruly behaviours. You can ask your dog to “sit” or “lay down” or, even better, just take deep breaths yourself and wait for him to offer any polite behaviour on his own. When you see a behaviour that you like, clearly give him the green light for tugging by saying “get it,” “yes,” “take it,” etc., and give the toy to him at his level so he doesn’t have to jump to get it. Tug for a short time, 10–20 seconds, and then do your “drop.” Wait for any calm behaviour before re-initiating tugging.
You can gradually shape the calm default behaviour into anything you want, for example, a longer down or eye contact. This game will teach your dog to self-regulate her arousal level and is an excellent impulse-control exercise for rambunctious types.
Once you have established the rules of tugging, you can start using the game as a reward. Use a very special tug toy that your dog only gets as a consequence of doing behaviours for you, one that is not available to him at all times. Dog sport people often take advantage of this: they cue a dog to perform behaviours, followed by a tug reward.
Should you ever let your dog win the toy? Absolutely – in some cases. I certainly do with my older dog because it is a huge confidence booster for him to run around with the toy in his mouth, and he really enjoys it. When I want the toy back, I will ask him to “drop” and I pick it up. This would not work with dogs who find the toy entertaining on its own and just run away with it. That game is not a shared activity. They should be allowed to do that with their “household” toys, but not with the ones used for reinforcing behaviours.
Gradually you can start asking your dog to do several behaviours in a row and then tug. For everyday manners and training, an excellent behaviour to reward by tugging is a recall! Call your dog, and when she runs to you, out comes the tug toy. You can use a well-tossed ball similarly: when your dog is running toward you, toss the ball in the direction your dog is running. You could even carry a little tug toy in your pocket on your leash walks and reward your dog for doing nice loose-leash walking beside you.
Games make everyday walks and interaction much more fun for both you and your dog, and the fact that your dog has to work for the toy will strengthen your bond.